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How Romance of the 3 Kingdoms shapes Chinese culture

Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a classic of Chinese literature. It is based on the real story of many characters from the Three Kingdoms period. The story opposes (ideologically and physically) the warlords Liu Bei and Cao Cao.
Written by Luo Guanzhong 700 years ago, it is an historical book with a bit of fiction.
The book influenced China and other countries in East Asia. Some consider it as valuable as Shakespeare for Eastern Asian Literature.

The beginning: the decadence of Han dynasty

The story of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms begins with a famous sentence:
The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.
The cyclicity represents very well the history of China and the succession of dynasties. And yet, this sentence is not coming from the original writer. Many editions which are popular worldwide are actually edited 300 years later by Mao Lun and Mao Zonggang.
Nevertheless, Luo Guanzhong gathered historical and folk legends together to create a masterpiece.
It all begins with the corruption of Han dynasty. Eunuchs constantly damage the interests of the state to grow richer and protect themselves. The emperor is not able to protect the interest of the people and is unable to sort the mess out. This state of affairs triggers unrest and revolts. The most important is the revolt of the Yellow Turbans, started in 184 A.D.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

From this event the main characters arise: the first is Cao Cao, intelligent and cynical. He will quickly gather followers, become a warlord and, then, prime minister of the empire. In reality, he is de facto usurping the ruling dynasty, and serving his own interests.
The second is Liu Bei, less ambitious but righteous and humane, serving as the main hero of the story.
Liu Bei and other two – Guan Yu and Zhang Fei – solemnly swear to live and die as one in a peach garden. The promise between the three will give them strength and direct their decisions through the story. Liu Bei becomes a great leader, and Zhang Fei and Guan Yu his lieutenants.
Together, they try to reinstate Han after Cao Cao takes over. In order to do that, they get the help of other characters, among which is the wise Zhuge Liang.
A third faction is the one belonging to the southern-based Sun family – at times allying with one, at times with the other.

Among the two fighters, it’s the third who thrives

The historical situation of the Three Kingdoms is represented well into the novel. Enemies and allies change as the balance of powers shifts on one direction or another. Sworn enemies may become temporarily allies in order to prevent a greater threat from defeating both.
As a matter of fact, it was not Cao Cao or Liu Bei to unify China, nor their children and grandchildren.
In the end, the one who took over was Sima Yi, general of Cao family.
He and his family usurped the Wei dynasty of the Cao family during a moment of weakness, and established the Jin dynasty. Jin would unify China in just 15 years, and ruled from 265 to 420 A.D.
Thus, the century of unrest of the Three Kingdoms is over, together with the story.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms shows opposites values and the cyclicity of history

The conflicts in the Three Kingdoms can be often directed to opposing values: ambition and morality, realism and idealism, individualism and collectivism. Liu Bei represents the humane leader, inspiring people to follow and serve his ideals, willingly to die for him. On the opposite side, Cao Cao is the cold calculator who mastered the art of war and deceit and uses it for his personal gain. Zhuge Liang is the ideal minister, clever, wise and loyal. Guan Yu is the perfect warrior: admired by friends and foes alike, and able to win a fight with merely his presence on the battlefield.

Guan Yu’s fame went much further than other characters. The statue shown is in Guan Yu Shrine in Koh Samui island, Thailand. Source:

But Liu Bei and his allies’ qualities cannot change the course of history, or the destiny: unlucky events and the very same qualities of Liu Bei are the ones that seal his fate, and make his a noble but useless attempt at restoring Han dynasty.
The fiction present in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is well inserted and shows the personality of each character: Liu Bei’s strong morals and indecisiveness; Guan Yu’s martial prowess and pride; Zhang Fei’s courage and lack of discipline; Cao Cao’s appreciation of talent and deceiving personality, and so on.
Luo Guanzhong often attacks eunuchs, giving them the fault of most issues in the imperial decline of Han and other dynasties. It is interesting how it indeed were the eunuchs who were involved in the decline of the last Chinese dynasty as well – the Qing.

The influence in modern Chinese culture

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms managed to influence Chinese culture a lot. Some of the proverbs used in China are related to the novel, for example Speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao arrives, similar to the Western Speak of the devil…

Cao Cao and his army in Total War: Three Kingdoms, a strategic game inspired to the historical novel
Cao Cao as depicted in the strategic videogame Total War: Three Kingdoms. Source:

The book also describes many military tactics and explains how to well govern a state. These teachings come both from the period of the Three Kingdoms as well as the ancient past of China, including Sun Zi.
The novel is very popular in cultural works, for example literature, art, videogames (such as the famous Dynasty Warriors Japanese videogame series), cinema and so on.
Making a proper reference to the story or the characters could be a nice move to conquer the hearts of the Chinese audience.

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